I’m a bit in two minds about Neil Gaiman’s new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I enjoyed the book on a first reading, or rather it kept me fascinated and eager to reach its outcome, but there was something missing, something in my emotional response to the story and the characters, that I expected to find.
Part of the issue is a confusion about what the book is supposed to be. I came to it knowing very little about the story, except that it was being billed as Gaiman’s first adult novel since 2005’s Anansi Boys, and to me it isn’t an adult novel, and I am not responding to it as an adult novel.
Yet it is, after a fashion, an adult story. The narrator is an adult of unspecified age (but implied to be mid-forties), whose name is withheld, but he is part of the story in his adult self only in the book’s opening and closing sequences. The real story is of a forgotten period when he was aged 7, that he now recalls in impressive detail, in the person of his seven year old self with his seven year old’s perception (there is a sex scene that is plainly not understood as such by the narrator). But the precision, and the detail of memory through which the story is conveyed, is definitely adult.
Yet the tale itself, delving deeply into fantasy of the kind Gaiman exemplifies, with its underlying of a mythic element (not one taken from any recognisable myth but, like the Endless in Sandman conceived in Gaiman’s own mind) feels like the concerns of a child. Gaiman makes the point explicitly in the book, that children explore, make their own paths, whereas adults follow defined ways.
The story is set in motion by the suicide of a lodger staying with the boy’s family. The family car is missing. The boy and his father go looking for it, and find it down a long lane, near an old farmhouse, with the lodger dead from exhaust fumes piped into the car. Whilst the Police carry out their business, the boy is taken in to the farm, which is run by the Hempstocks.
The Hempstocks are three women, three generations, daughter, mother, grandmother or, as they are open (in front of the boy) from the outset about having powers or abilities that we would equate to magic, we should immediately think of them as Maiden, Mother and Crone. Gaiman has form with just such a Trinity, in Sandman: the three Fates, the Erinyes, the Kindly Ones.
They are also the only figures in the book to be named throughout: everyone in the narrator’s family, in ‘real life’, is named only in relation to the boy: Sister, Father, Mother, the lodger. The ‘villain’ of the story, whose ultimate nature is never disclosed although she is plainly a predator, is named as Ursula Monkton when she breaks into real life, though her real name is apparently Skarthach of the Keep. It’s significant that, as a direct result of her true name becoming known, Skarthach/Ursula is destroyed.
Names are of importance. Gaiman never states this, but he writes in accordance with this belief. That the Hempstocks are named is an illustration of their security, a security that remains uppermost even though the Three are reduced to Two in preserving the boy.
The ladies, Lettie (aged an apparent 11), Ginnie and Granny, are the still heart of competence in this book. They are Puissant, Powerful, though never do they express it as such – it would be too common. They are three figures who simply Are, and what they are is unbeatable – for want of a better word. They already know that the death has aroused… something, something that they call a flea, indicating it’s level of significance, at least to them. Throughout the book, they act to support and defend the boy, even to the extent of taking his memories away from him, until – as he has done on other occasions in need – he returns, in need of their recollection.
I’m not going to say more about the story. Gaiman writes simply and precisely, an adult voice for a child’s recollections, fine and precise, but never over-reaching itself into adult understanding or imagery. The eye is finely detailed, and Gaiman evokes the times (drawing on his own Sussex childhood) with an unobtrusive accuracy. Over everything arches the absolute terror of knowing that any fight between a child and an adult is impossible and unwinnable from the outset: that even those closest to and most responsible for protecting you will abandon you wholly and allow the monster to win.
I think this is a very good book, but I also think I have to adjust, to learn to see it as it is, rather that as it’s been promoted. Gaiman himself sees this as an adult novel, and has chosen to tell it that way, but the story is a child’s story, and it’s concerns are those appropriate to the child at its centre. It is far closer in essence to Coraline than Anansi Boys, or, a fairer comparison, Neverwhere.
As a final point, given Gaiman’s caution as to names, except for those who are secure or destroyed, is intriguingly reversed in one specific instance. The boy has dealings with three cats throughout the book; a kitten he names Fluffy, which is callously killed early on; a full-grown cat meant for its replacement, though it is in every way unsuitable, and which arrives with the name Monster; and a kitten that comes through from the world that is seen with the Hempstocks, a kitten the boy loves as much as Fluffy but which is ultimately not of his world: this kitten has no name.
I see that I’ve managed to get through almost 1,000 words discussing this book without even mentioning the Ocean of the title, which is, on the surface, no more than a duckpond, albeit a duckpond that can get poured into a bucket (much against its will). What that Ocean is should be discovered in the book, which you really should all read. I shall be doing so again, soon.
N.B. The book cover shown above is that of the UK edition. The American cover uses similar imagery, in that it shows a child underwater, but shows that image from a point level with the child, lacking the element of the sky above, and definitely lacking the ring of birds which creates a sense of borders, or shores, that in the UK edition directly evokes the duckpond element. The American cover is consequently darker, and more passive in the child’s figure. In addition, whilst the UK edition suggests a boy, swimming naked or possibly in shorts, the American cover is ambiguous. The figure wears a white, thigh-length garment, rendering it more female is aspect: the photos is too dark to tell what length hair the child has. I’ve often found American editions to have better covers than British ones, but this is clearly a case of the reverse. I’d love to know the rationale behind the selection of the different scenes.